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Radiohead | Hail to the Thief | review | alternative | rock | Lollipop


Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
by Tim Den

The very notion of Radiohead returning to the center of my universe in the year 2003, seemed about as laughable as my once worshipping Shades Apart: Unrealistically hoping a once-great band would climb out of its self-made tub of crap and get down to business again. Not that Kid A and Amnesiac were as bad as Sonic Boom, but certainly Radiohead had softened my hard-on by stripping away all of their bewildering melodies for a try at the amateur Aphex Twin battle of the DJs. "Idioteque," "Pyramid Song," "Morning Bell"? Yeah yeah yeah, whatever. Bleeps and bloops are great when tweaked in the right hands, not when the greatest melodismiths in the world decide to fuck off for a few years.

So how was I to know that Hail to the Thief would return, if not all, but most of my fevor for the band? All the hype leading up to its release had blindly (or deafly, as most of these reviewers must've been... hey, maybe they also liked the new Metallica) claimed a "return to guitar rock," which actually made me even less excited about what I'd predicted to be too-little-too-late. But after repeated listens and examinations, it's clear that Hail to the Thief is the most Radiohead album yet. That is to say, the band has finally found comfort within itself; the perfect crossroads between endlessly crusading for "musical progress" and just writing solid songs. "Sit Down. Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders)," perhaps the best example of Radiohead's newfound confidence, sums it up the best: Unrelenting vocal mastery, trickling electronic rhythm track, gradiose climax, and actual Warp-worthy breakbeats in a single, well-timed file. Like a great novel or film, all the right cues happen at right moments, each component gelling together to form an all-encompassing statement. And the statement here is clear: Radiohead no longer fears rock nor electronica. It feels comfortable making love to both.

"2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)" opens the ceremonies like only "Airbag" had done before it - instantly affective, heart-wrenchingly beautiful - exploding toward the end into a jittery, clanging rocker that would make The Pixies proud. "Backdrifts (Honeymoon is Over)" is the band finally mastering beat manipulation; "A Punch Up at a Wedding (No No No No No No No No)" packs a dense, bluesy groove; "Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner)" is Krautrock channeled through '80s synths; and first single "There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)" reminds you why you fell in love with Radiohead's eerie hooks in the first place. And while, like all Radiohead albums, there are a few clunkers ("The Gloaming [Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold]" contains probably the band's worst melody ever; "Sail to the Moon [Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky]" and "We Suck Young Blood [Your Time is Up]" are meandering and dull), moments like the middle of "Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)" - expansive chords chipping away on an irresistable groove - make you forget all the low points.

But the final victory undoubtedly belongs to closer "A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll)." Cuz, when all is said and done with Kid A and Amnesiac, this is the song that really pushes Thom Yorke's envelope. For a decade now, Yorke has made word-dragging and mumbling falsetto a standard in indie rock. Even during Radiohead's "experimental phase," he stretched words like taffy, crooned indecipherably, and never stepped outside of the "Thom Yorke style" of singing. It was as if he had become just a copy cat of the vocal boundaries he'd created in the first place. But on "A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll)," a new vocalist shows himself. Clearly enunciated and low-toned, Yorke uses the lyrics as percussion and dances all over the time signature. Sure, Arab Strap has made a career out of such vocal patterns, but Yorke stays one step ahead by turning the chorus into a glorious, sweeping, touchingly humorous serenade. And the fact that the song - like the entire album - never stops flowing between such different elements, proves that Radiohead are finally at peace with their craft... and have never sounded better.  

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